It’s a sign of how long the list of particulars against Michael Flynn has become that when I wrote about his legal liabilities yesterday, I failed to mention one of the most serious things he did while serving Donald Trump.
One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.
The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.
Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.
If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces – and which was his undeclared client.
Trump eventually would approve the Raqqa plan, but not until weeks after Flynn had been fired.
Vera Bergengruen of McClatchy reports that there are people in Congress who privately describe what Flynn did as treason, although most legal experts probably wouldn’t agree.
I just want to run through an exercise with you. Imagine for a moment that President-elect Trump did not know that Michael Flynn was being paid more than half a million dollars to lobby on behalf of Turkey. And imagine that he took Flynn’s advice on what to do about the planned attack on Raqqa at face value and went along with it on the presumption that it was untainted and honest analysis. This seems plausible to me.
But now try to imagine how Trump must have felt when he discovered that Flynn had concealed his Turkish contract from him. How would a normal person react?
It’s not just that Flynn wasn’t honest and that he gave self-serving advice that may not have been in the best interests of the country, but he also created all kinds of political problems for the president by concealing his Turkish connection from the folks in charge of vetting him and giving him security clearances. He didn’t register as a foreign agent, either.
If this is roughly the scenario that unfolded, then Trump should be furious with Flynn. How could he not be?
But Trump is still telling people that firing Flynn was a mistake, so maybe this isn’t an accurate depiction of what Trump knew.
Back in early March, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the media that the president had no idea that Flynn was being paid to lobby for Turkey. At the same time, Vice-President Mike Pence told Fox News that he didn’t know a thing about Flynn’s Turkish work until he read in the papers that Flynn had retroactively registered as a foreign agent.
That was curious, though, because in mid-November both The Daily Caller and Politico reported that Flynn was taking money from the Turks. And, after reading those reports, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent Pence a letter in which he noted that Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelley, had confirmed the allegations. The letter was sent to Pence because he was leading the transition team at the time.
In truth, the White House acknowledged in March that “lawyers on the transition team” had known that Flynn might have to register as an agent of a foreign power because of his contract with Turkey. In fact, Flynn’s own legal team had raised the issue with the transition team and with soon-to-be White House counsel Don McGahn:
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump had not been aware Flynn might register as a foreign agent. He said Flynn’s lawyer had raised the possible filing with the transition team, but Trump’s attorneys responded that it was a personal matter and not something they would consult on.
“It’s a business matter, it’s not something that would be appropriate for a government entity to give someone guidance on when they should file as an individual,” Spicer said. He dismissed questions about whether Flynn’s work should have raised red flags for the new administration, saying the retired Army lieutenant general had “impeccable credentials.”
Among those told of Flynn’s lobbying work during the transition was Don McGahn, a campaign lawyer who has gone on to become White House counsel, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations between Flynn’s representatives and the transition team.
A White House official said McGahn and others were not aware of the details of Flynn’s work. It’s not clear why the Trump advisers did not seek additional information once Flynn’s lawyers raised the potential filing.
Now, it’s entirely possible that none of this came to the attention of Donald Trump. He had made it clear that he wanted Flynn as his National Security Adviser and his people probably were more interested in facilitating that desire than thwarting it.
But, if that’s the case, then shouldn’t Trump have been angry when he learned that Flynn had been advising him on Turkey without revealing that he was being heavily compensated by the Turkish government?
“A lot of people in the White House don’t want anything to do with Flynn,” one White House official said. ”But Trump loves him. He thinks everyone is out to get him.”
Under the circumstances, as they unfolded, Trump should have been the first person “out to get” Flynn. He should have felt a sense of personal betrayal. But he clearly doesn’t feel that way.
Instead, his first instinct was to try to protect Flynn. Most notably, after an Oval Office meeting with national security officials on the terrorism threat, “Trump asked everyone to leave except [FBI Director James] Comey,” and then he made a personal appeal for Comey to cut Flynn some slack. Even after this exchange became public, Trump made sure that official White House statements were crafted to defend Flynn: “While the President has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the President has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn.”
Of course, the investigation of Flynn is not just or even primarily about Turkey, but on the Raqqa question alone Trump should be outraged. And he’s not.
Now, read the following and ask yourself how you would react in Trump’s place:
Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team, sources told CNN.
The conversations deeply concerned US intelligence officials, some of whom acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn, who was tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser, current and former governments officials said.
“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” one former Obama administration official said, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.
The conversations picked up by US intelligence officials indicated the Russians regarded Flynn as an ally, sources said.
If it were me, I’d be suspicious that Flynn had been working for the Russians all along and had been dishonest in his dealings with me and in the advice he had provided me on foreign policy. Maybe I wouldn’t want to admit as much publicly, but I also wouldn’t be inclined to say he was “a decent man who served and protected our country.”
I know it’s difficult to put yourself in Trump’s shoes because he’s a very unusual personality type. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump is doing one of two things.
The first possibility is that Trump knows full-well that Flynn was working for the Russians because he was working for them, too.
The second possibility is that, for whatever reasons, he can’t allow Flynn to talk to investigators because it would expose misdeeds of his own.
These two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive, but at least one of them must be true.
Most people are going to gravitate to the second possibility because it’s less grave in its consequences. Perhaps the misdeeds Trump is hiding are not so serious. Maybe he doesn’t want to admit that he didn’t properly vet Flynn or he is trying to hide that he asked Flynn to interact with Ambassador Kislyak because he wanted to start his relations with Russia with a clean slate. Perhaps he’s acting loyally to Flynn in part because Flynn only did what he was told to do and in part because the truth would expose that he’s told some rather extraordinary lies.
Even if we allow for this more innocent explanation, however, it’s really very damning. Trump has repeatedly acted to stymie and shut down an investigation of Flynn, committing clear acts of obstruction of justice that would result in imprisonment for anyone not shielded by the Office of the Presidency’s protections against prosecution. If he did all this to avoid mere embarrassment and survivable political headaches, that’s kind of incredible.
And consider that Trump would in this more innocuous scenario still have plenty of reasons to be furious with Flynn. He’d be hiding that perfectly normal and understandable human emotion and presenting public support for him for purely self-serving reasons. Basically, he’d be saying nice things about Flynn and sending him text messages to “stay strong” and firing the FBI director not because he’s pleased with Flynn but because he’s desperate to keep him from talking.
There’s a narrative the follows somewhat along these lines without quite fleshing out all the implications. The narrative basically says that Trump simply doesn’t understand that he’s obstructing justice. He doesn’t realize that he’s not supposed to ask the Director of National Intelligence and the head of the National Security Agency to lie on his behalf or to ask the FBI director to quash a counterintelligence investigation and then fire him when he does not. The evidence for this is that he freely admits to (some of) his crimes, which a normal person would not do.
And it’s true, there’s something inexplicable about Trump’s behavior because it mixes such a clear consciousness of guilt with actions that would only be taken rationally be a person who feels innocent. More and more, his only defense is a kind of bottomless cluelessness that caroms off in every direction. He’s a dupe of the Russians rather than a witting participant. He doesn’t understand when he’s been used and betrayed even when it’s staring him squarely in the face. He has no clue what was done by his operatives, so his sense of innocence is real. He thinks the people who he asks to clear him can do so truthfully because he’s got no attachment to anything approximating reality. He erroneously thinks the president can do whatever he wants because he has a misimpression of how the Constitution and our system of checks and balances are designed to work.
Some people think these hypotheses are both plausible and a defense against removal from office.
The truth is, the more plausible these theories are, the more urgently they argue for his removal from office.